It is the highest house in all of Zhenjiang, tucked behind bamboo above the Yangtze mist shrouding Cloud Scaling Hill. The former occupants lie buried on two continents: the parents nearby, their famous daughter beneath Pennsylvania farm soil in a grave marked with her Chinese name. She arrived in China as a child of missionaries. Now, steles resembling tombstones front her gray brick childhood home. In English, the epitaph reads, “Here lived Pearl S. Buck, American author, born 1892, died 1973.” The more effusive carving in Chinese cites a Nobel Prize and the praise of a president: “Nixon called her a bridge between the civilizations of East and West.”
Zhenjiang is where author Pearl S. Buck grew up, where she experienced the sweat and toil of everyday Chinese life that dominated so many of her books and came to define China for a generation of Americans.
In Buck, the Chinese chose an unlikely heroine. For decades, her books were banned in China, and Buck was criticized as someone who vilified the Chinese because she depicted poor, illiterate peasants. Near the end of her life, as she longed to see the land of her childhood, the communist government harshly rejected her application for a visa.
In the United States, interest in Buck dwindled after her death in 1973. Her best-known book, the 1932 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Good Earth,” continues to resonate; Oprah Winfrey picked it as a must-read. But her other titles struggle to find a modern audience. About 14,500 people a year visit her home in Perkasie, Pennsylvania.
In Zhenjiang, where she arrived as the 3-month-old daughter of Presbyterian missionaries, Buck’s reputation is growing. The movement to recognize her started in the late 1980s, during the Reform and Opening period, when a few researchers began to explore the writings of this outspoken Western woman. Today she’s celebrated in Chinese TV specials and serials. A documentary co-produced by the Zhenjiang People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries describes her as “an American writer who told the Chinese stories in a Chinese way in English” — no small compliment in a culture obsessed with its own longevity and accomplishment.
There was only this perfect sympathy of movement, of turning this earth of theirs over and over to the sun, this earth which formed their home and fed their bodies and made their gods…Some time, in some age, bodies of men and women had been buried there, houses had stood there, had fallen, and gone back into the earth. So would also their house, some time, return into the earth, their bodies also. Each had his turn at this earth. They worked on, moving together-together-producing the fruit of this earth.
She grew up as a blue-eyed, blond-haired minority, taunted by other children as a “foreign devil,” a discrimination that fueled her later work for racial tolerance. Perhaps most of all, she devoted herself to children, and specifically to the adoption of Asian and Amerasian children, who were believed to be unadoptable in the 1940s.
Buck’s life spanned the Boxer Rebellion, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. She criticized Mao and U.S. policy toward China. Even now, there are people in the United States who consider her a communist. She spoke out early for civil rights and women’s rights — and did lasting damage to her reputation toward the end of her life by taking up with a dancing instructor half her age.